Mauro Icardi acted as Inter’s transfer ambassador this summer, personally welcoming incoming players to Milan, giving them his phone number, offering to help them find housing or recommend schools for their kids. It’s the sort of thing longtime players do on occasion, particularly when they’re excited about the upcoming season and want everything to unfold as smoothly as possible. It also demonstrates a deep and certain connection to the club—welcome to mi casa, etc.—that in Icardi’s case is notable because he’s been on the verge of leaving Inter for a few summers now, if not in the fire-up-the-fax-machine sense, then in that way players who are Champions League level at Europa League-qualifying clubs seem to belong half to their current employer and half to a collection of rumored destinations. Of course, Inter are in the UCL this year, and they’ve drawn some serious talent on the back of that. Hence Icardi greeting his new teammates as if he were hustling them into a van for a road trip he can’t wait to start.

In the background of this, there’s persistent buzz that Real Madrid are interested in him. Barcelona, maybe, too. Chelsea might need a striker, next summer, if Alvaro Morata underwhelms again. This is not to say Icardi is interested in any of this or would be in the future. It’s just the thunder than rolls beneath the discussion of every damn star in Europe who isn’t already playing at a mega-club. He’s awesome for Tottenham (or Sevilla, Napoli, Stuttgart). Can’t wait to see him at United (or Madrid, Juve, Bayern). There lingers the assumption of an inevitable lucrative exit. Tadpoles become frogs and talented Germans become Bayern players.

But there’s another path hardly anybody takes, and perhaps Icardi is on it. Every club have a project, or claim to anyway, but Inter do legitimately seem to be trying to build a team that can challenge for titles. They’ve had a hugely promising summer in the transfer market, nabbing Radja Nainggolan, Lautaro Martinez, Sime Vrsaljko, and Stefan de Vrij. They’ve kept Ivan Perisic despite the perennial Manchester United interest and at least tried to pry Luka Modric away from Real Madrid. Every offseason, there’s a club or two who attempt to spend their way into the Champions League or make a splash after having qualified for it. That gambit doesn’t always work out—see: 2017-18 AC Milan—but Inter, on paper at least, have been smart about who they’ve signed and for how much. They’re filling holes in their lineup and adding some depth without breaking the bank on any one acquisition. This isn’t a Champions League-winning side, but it’s an ambitious one that could put some heat on Juventus domestically if a few things break right. A good season would be making it out of their UCL group, finishing second or third in the league, and feeling as if they have something to build toward next year.

Athletes aren’t typically as invested in a club’s success as fans are because they move around a lot and often didn’t grow up rooting for the club they play for, but there are rare instances when a player develops an institutional bond with his club. Icardi appears to have one with Inter, having joined back in 2012 and stuck around through some lean years, and though that’s not a guarantee he’ll still be there in a year or two, he’s bought into management’s vision because it would, in some allegiance-defined way, be more special for him to win at Inter than anywhere else. He’s endured mid-table finished, disappointing botched rebuilds, and an incident in which he—Christ!—threatened to hire Argentine assassins to kill some fans who were harassing him. Icardi’s done a lot at Inter, had a lot done to him. He’d like to see the suffering pay off. 

This is not exactly the same thing as loyalty. The star striker was probably going to take Madrid (or whoever) up on their offer if Inter hadn’t made the Champions League last season. You can only put so much work into something before you fear it’s going to come to nothing and change up your approach. This goes double for athletes, since their careers are short and perilous. But Inter have earned Icardi’s confidence, at least for the next little while.

And at the moment, he must be enjoying a rare thrill. Winning is not some cosmic given at Europe’s biggest clubs, but it’s expected and almost always arrives. If you play at Barcelona for a few years, you’re going to grab some silverware provided half the locker room doesn’t come down with cholera. In places where it’s less certain how things are going to go—who’s staying, how the team will come together, whether spots in the lineup bound with plaster and chewing gum will stand up throughout the season—the risk is much greater that, at year’s end, everyone will be exhausted with nothing to show for it. But it is at least an adventure, the precarious upward surge, the idea of beating the house. 

It’s possible all Mauro Icardi will get is the taste he has in his mouth at the moment, the electricity of the idea. But he deserves at least that plus anything good that happens for he and Inter in the coming season. This is the beginning of something, and the beginning, no matter how things unfold from there, is unspoilable fun. Especially when you’ve been waiting like Icardi has, hoping, holding off suitors, because you want to make it work at the club you love. Maybe this is it: a culmination.

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